Philip LawlerFurther to the case of the former San Francisco priest Stephen Kiesle: Phil Lawler of and Fr Joseph Fessio of Ignatius Press clarify the issues in the context of the crisis of priestly dispensations and marriage annulments evident by 1980.

Most important point: the Vatican was not being asked to deal with Fr Kiesle’s sexual offences — that had already been done by California courts and Kiesle’s bishop. No, it was dealing with a request for dispensation from priestly celibacy. Here is what Phil Lawler says:

• Was Cardinal Ratzinger responding to the complaints of priestly pedophilia? No. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which the future Pontiff headed, did not have jurisdiction for pedophile priests until 2001. The cardinal was weighing a request for laicization of Kiesle.

• Had Oakland’s Bishop John Cummins sought to laicize Kiesle as punishment for his misconduct? No. Kiesle himself asked to be released from the priesthood. The bishop supported the wayward priest’s application.

• Was the request for laicization denied? No. Eventually, in 1987, the Vatican approved Kiesle’s dismissal from the priesthood.

• Did Kiesle abuse children again before he was laicized? To the best of our knowledge, No. The next complaints against him arose in 2002: 15 years after he was dismissed from the priesthood.

• Did Cardinal Ratzinger’s reluctance to make a quick decision mean that Kiesle remained in active ministry? No. Bishop Cummins had the authority to suspend the predator-priest, and in fact he had placed him on an extended leave of absence long before the application for laicization was entered.

• Would quicker laicization have protected children in California? No. Cardinal Ratzinger did not have the power to put Kiesle behind bars. If Kiesle had been defrocked in 1985 instead of 1987, he would have remained at large, thanks to a light sentence from the California courts. As things stood, he remained at large. He was not engaged in parish ministry and had no special access to children.

• Did the Vatican cover up evidence of Kiesle’s predatory behavior? No. The civil courts of California destroyed that evidence after the priest completed a sentence of probation– before the case ever reached Rome.

So to review: This was not a case in which a bishop wanted to discipline his priest and the Vatican official demurred. This was not a case in which a priest remained active in ministry, and the Vatican did nothing to protect the children under his pastoral care. This was not a case in which the Vatican covered up evidence of a priest’s misconduct. This was a case in which a priest asked to be released from his vows, and the Vatican– which had been flooded by such requests throughout the 1970s — wanted to consider all such cases carefully. In short, if you’re looking for evidence of a sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, this case is irrelevant.

On the Ignatius Press blog Insight Scoop, Jesuit priest and publisher Father Joseph Fessio also provides some vital context for this case, stressing that the case “had nothing to do with pedophilia and everything to do with strengthening marriage and the priesthood.”

How was that?

Fr Fessio points out the seriousness and permanence of priestly ordination and the long period of preparation before the commitment to priesthood can be undertaken (8 to 10 years). Like marriage vows, priestly ordination is “indissoluble” — a validly ordained priest never ceases to be a priest, just as a valid marriage can never cease to exist. And yet the effects of the sexual revolution saw requests for annulments (declaration of an invalid marriage) pouring into the Vatican, while “Hundreds, perhaps thousands of priests were asking for dispensation from their promise of celibacy in order to be able to marry.” And it seems that the requests were being rather easily granted.

This was a source of considerable scandal to Catholics, says Fr Fessio, especially to those wanting annulments so they could remarry. When John Paul II became Pope he wanted to break this momentum:

When John Paul II was elevated to the papacy in the Fall of 1978, he immediately changed the policy on priestly dispensations. I don’t have the exact dates and numbers at hand, but I remember at the time that many of us were amazed that the hundreds of dispensations per year (and it may have been thousands) under John Paul II’s predecessor, Paul VI, suddenly were reduced to almost zero. It was almost impossible to get a dispensation in 1980.

What was John Paul’s intent? To restore the integrity of the priesthood and of marriage. These commitments are permanent. A priest may be removed from ministry, but he will not be given a dispensation to marry. Priests are to be made to take their commitments with utmost seriousness. They will be an example to married couples to take theirs seriously also. When a priest makes a promise of celibacy, it’s forever; when a couple make vows of marriage, it’s forever.

This is the decisive context of Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter to Bishop Cummins. It is not a smoking gun. It did not mean that Ratzinger was not taking the priest’s sins seriously. (He called the accusations “very serious” [gravis momenti].) It meant that he, following the policy of John Paul II, was taking the priesthood and its commitments very seriously.

And again, this entire affair had nothing to do with preventing further abuse by this priest. That had already been done, or should have been done, by the local bishop.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet